IT takes a lot to throw John Barclay off his stride, either on or off the pitch, and yesterday’s Scotland press conference at Oriam was no exception. Whether the topic was his impending move to Edinburgh Rugby or his bid on Saturday to become the first man to captain the national team to victory over the All Blacks, the back-row forward was characteristically unflappable.
Edinburgh first. Ten days have passed since the first report that Barclay will leave the Scarlets this summer to join Richard Cockerill’s side. Asked about it last week, he did nothing to deny it, and the same was true yesterday.
“It won’t go away,” he said of the story. “I’ll play a straight bat.”
There is now no doubt that the move will be agreed, and it is understood that the aim is to announce it officially this week. But if for logistical reasons an announcement has to be postponed until early next week, and if by that time Barclay has led Scotland to victory over New Zealand – well, perhaps so much the better from the point of view of Edinburgh, for whom such a signing represents a major statement of intent for next season.
Gregor Townsend was originally due to reveal his team for Saturday’s game today [Wednesday], but, with winger Tommy Seymour still apparently a doubt because of a toe injury, that has been put off until tomorrow [Thursday]. Whoever plays for the home team, of course, will have to deal not only with the physical challenge of confronting the world champions, but also with the mental burden of knowing that, after 30 attempts in exactly 112 years, Scotland have never beaten New Zealand.
Or at least, it might be felt by some as a mental burden. Barclay, by contrast, sees no reason to dwell on it, and explained that the record of two draws and 28 defeats – stretching way back to a 12-7 loss at Inverleith on 18 November 1905 – was unlikely to emerge as a topic of conversation within the home camp this week.
“There would be no use talking about that, would there?,” he said. “It’s one of those stats, isn’t it? We’ve certainly not mentioned it. I knew coming up here [to the press conference] it would be mentioned, but no, it doesn’t bother me.
“It is what it is. It’s a stat. It will still be the stat come one minute before kick-off on the weekend. We’ll then have 80 minutes of rugby to play. It’s a huge challenge, but an exciting one, to try and change that record.
“For me it’s always a big week when you come in and get to play for Scotland, but I think when the All Blacks are in town everyone gets excited: the media get excited, the fans get excited. It’s a big challenge for us, the best team in the world coming to our back garden.”
Having said that, Barclay also insisted that it was important to get the balance right, and to be aware of the quality of the opposition without being mesmerised by it.
“It’s always inspiring to play at Murrayfield – I don’t think you should have to be inspired by the opposition,” he continued. “If we sit back in awe then there’s something drastically wrong with your mindset. We need to focus on ourselves as much as we can and impose ourselves.
“We’ve had some good victories in the past 12-18 months. This weekend will be very hard. They don’t lose many games, although they have lost a few in the past 12 months. We have to play well, we know that. We can’t just sit back and watch them play. We have to go and play with an intent, be aggressive, and try and impose ourselves on them.
“I saw a few things after the Lions saying the All Blacks were vulnerable on this tour. That’s a bit comical really when you look at their record: they’re still really good. They have to have a strong mentality, otherwise they wouldn’t produce these teams year in, year out. They don’t have an inherent right to do so, but they do. I’m sure they’re confident.
“They’re one of the greatest teams in sport, never mind rugby. There’s excitement in town for them being here, but wherever they go that excitement follows them. We try not to get caught up in all that, and try as much as we can to realise they’ve been beaten a couple of times this year, so not to be in awe of them. We’ve got to do a bit of homework on the All Blacks, but if we sit back and talk about them and how fantastic they are, there’s no chance.”
There was certainly no chance for Scotland the first time Barclay came up against the All Blacks, on his debut in the 2007 Rugby World Cup. Then national coach Frank Hadden selected a second string for the pool game at Murrayfield, but did not state as much, claiming instead that he had chosen a team to go out and beat New Zealand. Scotland duly lost 40-0.
“I remember the speed of the game,” Barclay said. “It was their big pool game to prepare for the quarter-final, and they were hacked off we’d put out a second-string team, effectively. It was tough for me, because we kept getting asked about putting out a second-string team.
“I loved the occasion, getting my first cap; the whole week was great. But as far as first caps go, the result was not what I always dreamed of.”
Scotland have played the All Blacks four times since, each time at Murrayfield, and although they have suffered another couple of heavy defeats, the last game, in 2014, was lost by just eight points – 16-24. That result and the improvement made since, first under Vern Cotter and now under Townsend, have made the dream of recording that first win against New Zealand feel more realistic than it has been for some time.